It is a sad but expected reality that Justice Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court has become a political hot potato while it is still warm from his long years of influential service. My appreciation for Scalia has grown immensely since his death as I have read moving stories about his friendships and respect that bridged ideological divides with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan. Such bipartisanship is an endangered species in our polarized world and needs to be recognized and celebrated. I must confess that I was guilty of stereotyping Justice Scalia based on his conservative and often controversial legal opinions, and I vow to relearn yet again the danger of such narrow thinking.
(Follow this link to read Ginsburg’s tribute to her friend and legal rival: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/02/14/read_justice_ruth_bader_ginsburg_s_touching_statement_on_scalia.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/14/opinions/david-axelrod-surprise-request-from-justice-scalia/ for Scalia’s respect for Justice Kagan.)
Having said that, this unexpected vacancy on the court creates a valuable opportunity in this election year for all of us to learn and grow in our understanding of the importance of the court and the different philosophies represented in the selection process that have tremendous impact on the direction our nation will go moving forward.
I don’t know much about the judges who have been mentioned to fill this vacancy thus far, but it occurred to me that we United Methodists have a great candidate in one of the founders of our denomination, John Wesley. As you can see from his picture he has the wardrobe for the job. The problem of course is that Wesley is not available since he died over 300 years ago. But I would still like to propose that Wesley’s thinking can shed some valuable light on the selection process.
Wesley developed a very useful paradigm for making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making ethical decisions: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. The balanced model Wesley provides honors the importance of all four components while realizing that they are all created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.
Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens must come to grips with. Laws and traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. (I wrote about some of these issues in more detail in a July 22. 2014 post, “Tradition: Only Part of the Formula.”)
“Originalism” or “Textualism” are the labels used to describe Justice Scalia’s approach to the legal system and the Constitution. I am certainly no legal scholar, but my understanding of that philosophy is that it strives to interpret legal questions according to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That approach is loaded with biblical and theological implications, and Wesley’s quadrilateral speaks directly to the need to in both law and theology to keep learning and growing in our understanding of justice in the rapidly changing world we live in.
My problem with Originalism is that it seems to argue that a group of wealthy white men who accepted slavery and denied equal rights to women should have the final word on how to live in a democracy today. That’s like trying to live by Levitcal law in the 21st century. The framers of the constitution were men of tremendous vision and courage, but limited as we all are by our cultural and historical context they knew nothing about Aids, Zika, climate change, AR-15’s, black holes and gravitational waves, globalization, or nuclear annihilation, just to name a few. But like Wesley the authors of the Constitution did have the wisdom to know that the laws of the land must be flexible in the face of changing revelations about human nature and the natural order. Realizing the need for reason and experience to make mid-course corrections they made provisions for amending the constitution and did so immediately with the addition of Bill of Rights.
With the same wisdom Wesley’s inclusion of reason, experience and tradition as necessary qualities for interpreting the Scriptures recognizes the on-going process of revelation. As the United Church of Christ reminds us, “God is still speaking.” Jesus did the same thing when he said repeatedly “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). Without the constant deepening of our understanding of God’s creation and God’s will as both our scientific and theological wisdom increases we would still live in a flat earth society with a vengeful, fearsome God and would celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.
Does that mean reason and experience represent a straight line of upward progress toward a perfect just and peaceful world? Obviously not. We cannot escape our human fallibility in matters of faith or of law. There is no perfect candidate for the Supreme Court or any other office, but seeking persons who balance respect for our foundational documents, be they Scripture or Constitution, with the value for applying our God-given ability to reason and learn from our experience and past traditions would be my litmus test in the selection process.